People and development manager, outdoors enthusiast, Minakami ambassador and survivor of a bear encounter. These are just some of the hats that Cory McGowan has worn during his 20-plus years of living in Japan. His latest venture, Adventure Partner sees him bring together these decades of work and life experience into a bespoke coaching business that blends in the unique natural landscape of Minakami. We chat with Cory to learn more about his passion for people, the outdoors and how this unlikely pairing can help tackle the rural depopulation problem that Japan continues to face.
What started you on your coaching career?
My career in Japan has always been centred around education and people development. I was trained formally as an executive coach and in my last full-time role as an Organizational Development Manager for the Tokyo American Club, I coached managers and directors from different teams. In parallel to this, I also coached leaders of NPOs in Tokyo on a pro-bono basis. But all of this work was very business-oriented and about how my clients could achieve their goals and take action within the framework of their organization.
The last 12 to 18 months has seen me moved into the transformative space where I’ve been exploring ontology, which is the study of different ways of being. My clients are still mostly business people and company leaders but we’re getting deeper in how we uncover what people really want and to have different approaches in how we think.
In this sense, the kind of coaching I’m doing now was always a natural progression from the work that I had already been doing for many years. The practice of coaching really resonates with me. I enjoy the 1:1 interaction and believe that within each person is the capacity to build the life they want. Coaches are merely able to facilitate that.
What is the difference between coaching, mentorship, consulting and having a manager at a company?
Roles like mentors, consultants or managers are deeply rooted in two things, power dynamics and expertise. With relationships that have power dynamics there are clearly defined roles in the person giving support and the person receiving support. The coaching that I do endeavors to equalize that power between myself and my clients. If anything, we’re supporting our clients and enabling them to come into their own power. This has been uniquely challenging working as a coach in Asia. Clients raised in Japan or other Asian cultures can easily slip into seeing their coach as a ‘sensei’ and asking for advice or expecting to be told what to do, so that also becomes one of the areas we work on in the coaching.
On the expertise side of things, mentors and consultants are often brought in with the implicit or explicit understanding that they’ll be telling you how to do the things that you need to do. With coaching, we acknowledge that our clients are the experts on their business and their lives. Coaching introduces approaches and ways of thinking that help unlock that capacity that you have.
Is coaching something you can train to become or is it something gained through work and life experience?
From my perspective, it comes down to both experience and the willingness to work on oneself. For someone to jump into coaching at an early age, it could be challenging as you haven’t had as many work or life experiences as the people you’ll be talking with. However you could become very good at coaching approaches and still work with people effectively. In regards to the selfwork, I think the best coaches have their own coaches or seek alternative forms of therapy, both as a means to understand their whole self. It’s also for them to have the experience of someone who is being coached and to see the impact it has.
Are the majority of your clients based in Japan? Could you tell us a bit more about their background and the kind of people you work with?
The majority of my clients are in a similar demographic to myself in terms of age, race and stage in life, which makes sense because I can very naturally meet them where they are. However, I look forward to expanding into a more diverse range of clients, whether that’s coaching more women, people of color or people who are coming from different paths and life situations. Coaching is a learning journey for both the coach and the client, and I too benefit from doing the work alongside them. The result enables me to show up to clients in ways that are genuine and meaningful.
What are some of the things to keep in mind if one is looking for a coach?
Be clear on why you are interested in working with someone. Think about what the purpose of this engagement might be and have a rough idea of what you want the outcome to be, even if does shift throughout the process. Getting a referral through someone you already know and trust can also be beneficial so you have that vote of confidence before you begin. Most importantly making sure you are able to connect and have a decent conversation together. In today’s world, a lot of this is of course done virtually but I think we’ve all evolved now to have a sense of a person and to trust them even if it’s through a screen.
You launched your business in November 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. How has it been navigate this global situation?
I see the fact that I started this in the middle of the pandemic as an advantage because remote work has always been my reality. I moved out to Minakami three years ago and when things didn’t work out at my previous job running an outdoor and adventure company, I really didn’t want to move back to Tokyo. I wanted to do things to fit in with my lifestyle here, so the quick shift of moving everything online actually made things a lot easier for me. What’s actually been a bigger challenge for me is being a solopreneur and supporting a family on what can sometimes be unstable income.
For coaching as an industry, I think the increasing complexity of the world, made exponential by the pandemic has seen a rise in the need for coaching and for people to focus on their mental well-being. However it’s also balanced alongside economic challenges and a reduction in the number of people who are able to prioritize coaching against their other financial commitments.
Tell us a bit about how you and your family moved to Minakami.
My family and I first started spending time in Minakami through a friend who had a vacation home here. We would visit for a few years and it was an amazing place to hang out and be close to nature. It occurred to me on one visit that we might actually be able to move to Minakami as the commute into Tokyo was still doable for me. So in terms of financial stability, I would be able to hold my job in the city while our cost of living would go down from living in a rural location.
A big part of the reason for moving out here is because I wanted my sons to have an understanding of what community is, beyond the life we led in Tokyo. Being an intentional member of the community fosters a sense of belonging and this could be a space for my sons to come back to or continue to be in.
How does being a local ambassador for Minakami tie in with your coaching business?
I’ve spent over 20 years in Japan and am very grateful for this opportunity. I want to be able to give back in some way and since moving here, I’ve noticed that rural depopulation is a real issue to contend with. For example, the school that my youngest son attends has around 180 children. But five to ten years ago, it had over 450 students. For the coming school year, all junior high schools in our area are going to merge into a single school. This will also happen to the elementary schools the following year, so we’re really seeing how this is changing the town and the landscape.
It’s been interesting seeing how this mission to support Minakami mixes with coaching. On the surface it might seem like they don’t connect but as I venture more into bringing clients into the outdoors as part of the coaching journey, I’m also able to champion Minakami and give this perspective on what is possible with changes to one’s lifestyle. If we could create some kind of model in Minakami that made sense, it would be great to see that replicated in other rural areas around Japan that need programs like this.
Minakami as an area is very cool. It’s rich in history and once upon a time, benefitted from a lot of investment in the infrastructure as you can see with the number of hotels built, the highway and having its own stop on the shinkansen. It’s complex with a lot of different industries here like onsen, agriculture and a big emphasis on the outdoors. The people here are a mix of local Japanese and foreigners, all of whom are very welcoming. So the town has a lot of different parts but it probably suffers because it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.
One of the interesting things that the town is doing right now is recognizing that due to the increasing ways we work remotely, there’s a potential to get more people interested in living here. They’ve created a role called a relocation concierge of which I am the first foreigner to be in this position. What we do is welcome people who have contacted Minakami about moving here and we drive them around to different locations. We take them out to lunch, show them some useful facilities like the new co-working spaces and give them insight into what life in Minakami could be like for them.
Any advice you could give to people wanting to pursue coaching as a profession?
The best thing you can do is to work with a coach. It’s the most powerful way to experience not only the coach-client relationship, but also the impact that working with a coach can have. If you can’t do that because of financial limitations, at least start talking to any experienced coaches in your network to see what their experience is like. There’s also a lot of free resources, trials and courses online that you could try. I’m also always available and excited to talk to people considering coaching as a profession.
Coaching feels like a calling to me and an act of service to people in a way that I’ve never felt in my previous work. It’s beautiful but the reality is that it’s not easy to make money from it. Just because I’m really passionate about it and work hard doesn’t mean people are immediately lining up. This isn’t to deter anyone but just as a word of caution. I also consider myself privileged to have been able to establish myself as a professional in my previous line of work as it came with some cushion and allowed me to take this risk at a financial level.
What’s next for you and Adventure Partner?
I’m currently launching Campfires and Co-Creation, the very first of its kind in Japan. This is a transformational program that includes online, theme-based group coaching, a campfire gathering in Minakami plus group and solo adventuring in the outdoors. The course right now is specifically tailored for men and those who identify as male as we’ll be touching on and how we can reconsider the firmly rooted gender roles and expectations from living in Japan. I’m also looking forward to launching future iterations of this program for everyone, including non-binary participants.
Photos by Joe Mather